The global rail industry seeks innovative solutions to make train travel more reliable, comfortable and cost-effective.

Despite its storied history, rail is rarely the first choice for speedy travel these days in the U.S. Yet for developed countries seeking solutions to worsening congestion resulting from urban sprawl and developing nations working to connect rural communities to distant cities, trains are an increasingly attractive solution for long commutes. The result is that rail stakeholders are looking for new solutions to improve the industry’s greatest challenges.

“It’s long been acknowledged that the challenges facing Britain’s railway network are those of capacity, reliability and efficiency, and that new technology holds the key to solving many of these,” says Tom Bowman, commercial director at Dura Composites, a U.K.-based manufacturer.

These challenges are not unique to Great Britain. From China to the United States and elsewhere around the world, train manufacturers, railroad associations and governments are striving to better connect communities by improving rail infrastructure, reducing the costs of high-speed and local rail systems, and creating comfortable and reliable trains that people will be eager to use.

Budgets that are “under ever increasing scrutiny” represent another big challenge that stakeholders face, according to Bowman. “It’s never been more vital to ensure that the solutions provided to the rail industry are both future-proof and have a measurable impact on efficiency.”

It’s no wonder that composite materials are viewed as a key solution.

Building a More Efficient Train

According to a February 2017 report from market research firm Lucintel, the future of the global rail composites market looks promising, with opportunities in both interior and exterior applications. The report projects the market for composite applications in the global rail industry to reach an estimated $821 million by 2021, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 3.6 percent. Major drivers for this growth include increasing demand for lightweight materials and rapid development of high-speed trains.

“Composites fit in very well with the lightweighting agenda,” says Ajay Kapadia, knowledge transfer manager for advanced composites at the Knowledge Transfer Network, a company that connects innovators with funding support. The cost benefits of reducing the weight of train cars are a key driver for the growing use of composites in many applications.

“Obviously, cost is the main issue – the cost of power and the cost of maintenance,” Kapadia says. As he points out, lighter trains allow for increased capacity. “With urban areas becoming more populous, especially in the developing world, they need a rapid transit system that fits in more people.”